CINCINNATI – A.J. Burnett‘s outing Friday might have been his last as a Pirate. He’s a free agent who is considering retirement after the season. And even if Burnett decides to return on a one-year deal, which GM Neal Huntington indicated is Burnett’s preference, would the Pirates be willing to out-spend other suitors?
Will he be back? Who knows, but there’s a significant percentage chance he does not return.
So if we have seen the last of the 36-year-old Burnett in Pittsburgh, what does the the always competitive, sometimes cantankerous man who sat at the top of the Pirates rotation the last two seasons leave behind? My take: a lot.
Does Burnett tip his cap good-bye? Who would have predicted a 4.0 WAR 2013 from Burnett back in 2012 spring training when this photo was taken?
I think the most important thing Burnett leaves behind, and Francisco Liriano, too, is that Pittsburgh is perhaps the best pitching rehabilitation center in major league baseball at the moment.
Look, two years ago the Yankees wanted to part ways so desperately with Burnett they sent Burnett and Brinks truck of dollars to Pittsburgh. Burnett had a 5.15 ERA in New York in 2011 and allowed 31 home runs, third worst in baseball. In 2010, he was even worse.
But in Pittsburgh he transformed himself back into a legit No. 2 starter. He’s gone from a flyball homer-prone pitcher, to a man who is second in groundball rate (56.5 percent) in the majors. He bought into the Pirates’ comprehensive run prevention approach, trading in reliance on his four-seam fastball for a reliance on a two-seam, sinking fastball. The sinker, and the Pirates’ defensive shifts, have turned around his career. (OK, going from the AL East to the NL Central and PNC Park didn’t hurt either).
Over the last two seasons Burnett has produced 7.0 WAR. He’s thrown 393 mostly quality innings.
His remarkable turnaround is important even after he leaves because his experience in Pittsburgh is a great advertisement for free agent pitchers who are coming off down seasons. The Pirates are never going to pay $200 million for A-list free agent starters. They have to either draft and develop them or find free agent value. And now because of Burnett and Liriano they can better attract some of the more attractive reclamation projects in baseball. Ray Searage and Dan Fox deserve a lot of credit for Burnett and Liriano’s turnarounds.
There are other things to Burnett leaves. He taught Gerrit Cole (and Eno Sarris) his curveball grip, which as we’ve seen in September has been a big deal. He has shown a competitive edge that young pitchers have observed. He showed them how to prepare. I wished he was more cooperative with the media because we would have had more gems like this when I asked Burnett about his improved pitch-mix:
“I proved the Marlins wrong a long time ago. I threw 44 change-ups in one game just to tell them to be quiet,” Burnett said.
I don’t think he told the Marlins to be “quiet.” Perhaps more along the likes of Burnett’s trademark “STFD.” It’s an attitude. It’s part of the Burnett Legacy.
HURDLE LEANING TOWARD FOUR-MAN ROTATION:
If the Pirates advance beyond Tuesday’s play-in game Hurdle said he is leaning toward employing a four-man rotation in the NLDS. This illustrates another example of Hurdle’s preference for keeping players in their accustomed routines and specifically to starting pitchers, keeping them on regular rest.
There are two off-days on the NLDS, and it would allow Burnett to pitch twice in the series if went to five games. His second start would be on regular rest.
Of course the other part of it is, the Pirates have four really good options in Burnett, Liriano, Charlie Morton and Gerrit Cole.
After Burnett, Morton could start Game 2 on regular rest and be followed by Cole would would be on extra rest oin Game 3 or 4. Liriano would be on regular rest for Game 3.
“With the days off right now we’re leaning more to using the four-man,” Hurdle said. “Still have some different situations that could play out whether Cole is used (Sunday)…. (Burnett) is in line to start the first game and we’d go from there. We have four guys who are pitching really well and we want to stick with it. We’ve been consistent with starting pitch.”
Again, no innings limit for Cole, it appears. Hurdle said he will be a part of the postseason rotation, should the Pirates advance.
“It’s based upon statistical analysis based upon all his time from his junior year through senior year (at UCLA), through all time spent in minor leagues to time in big leagues. There is a performance indicator we are following.”
But because of the off-days the Pirates could roll with a three-man rotation and use Cole as a relief arm. That’s a really intriguing option. Velocity typically increases 2-3 mph when pitching in relief so could Cole touch 102 in short stints?
Cole could start one game, or shorten two or three games as a difference-making setup/middle reliever.
Something to chew on.